Carr (The Legend of Broken, 2012, etc.) returns with a curious whodunit that weds leisurely 19th-century storytelling with 21st-century unpleasantness.
It’s not a demand for the Big Apple to give up to the Wicked Witch. Instead, the title of Carr’s new novel, full of echoes of and allusions to its predecessors, is also the name of an upstate town where NYPD psychologist Trajan Jones finds himself in exile, having crossed the brass one time too many. Now, with partner Mike Li, he’s teaching criminology online, a fact that lands him new connections—including a student who’s caught up in a whole mess of dark secrets surrounding the forest-shrouded burg. Complicating the story are the local gendarmes, a young blind woman who—this being a genre novel, after all—allows a good long glimpse at what’s underneath her robe, and—this being a Carr novel, full of quirks all its own—a pet cheetah. Bringing Up Baby it’s not, though a sordid twist involving what Carr euphemistically calls “illegal adoption” figures. It takes a good long while for the plot to unfold and the bad guys to emerge, as is the way of most police investigations—and of Carr’s Trollope-an style, long on atmospherics and short of car chases and their moral equivalents. And, as always, Carr takes an encyclopedic, parenthetical, village-explainer approach that some readers, used to swifter narratives, might not wholly endorse; along the way, we learn, for example, of the tensions between medical examiners and coroners, who are not the same thing, and why Albany is the capital of New York, for better or worse. Yet Carr’s story poses an utterly modern question: for a career-minded politico, which is worse, a child-neglect scandal or a serial killer on the loose? We get to see both at work, including some nicely nasty mayhem: “He’d been hit in the center of the back, the shot shattering his spine and, I found when I turned him over, taking away part of his chest.”
Carr’s many fans will find this well worth the wait.
What if the metaphorical Underground Railroad had been an actual…underground railroad, complete with steam locomotive pulling a “dilapidated box car” along a subterranean nexus of steel tracks?
For roughly its first 60 pages, this novel behaves like a prelude to a slave narrative which is, at once, more jolting and sepulchral than the classic firsthand accounts of William Wells Brown and Solomon Northup. Its protagonist, Cora, is among several African-American men and women enslaved on a Georgia plantation and facing a spectrum of savage indignities to their bodies and souls. A way out materializes in the form of an educated slave named Caesar, who tells her about an underground railroad that can deliver her and others northward to freedom. So far, so familiar. But Whitehead, whose eclectic body of work encompasses novels (Zone One, 2011, etc.) playing fast and loose with “real life,” both past and present, fires his most daring change-up yet by giving the underground railroad physical form. This train conveys Cora, Caesar, and other escapees first to a South Carolina also historically unrecognizable with its skyscrapers and its seemingly, if microscopically, more liberal attitude toward black people. Compared with Georgia, though, the place seems so much easier that Cora and Caesar are tempted to remain, until more sinister plans for the ex-slaves’ destiny reveal themselves. So it’s back on the train and on to several more stops: in North Carolina, where they’ve not only abolished slavery, but are intent on abolishing black people, too; through a barren, more forbidding Tennessee; on to a (seemingly) more hospitable Indiana, and restlessly onward. With each stop, a slave catcher named Ridgeway, dispensing long-winded rationales for his wicked calling, doggedly pursues Cora and her diminishing company of refugees. And with every change of venue, Cora discovers anew that “freedom was a thing that shifted as you looked at it, the way a forest is dense with trees up close but from outside, the empty meadow, you see its true limits.” Imagine a runaway slave novel written with Joseph Heller’s deadpan voice leasing both Frederick Douglass’ grim realities and H.P. Lovecraft’s rococo fantasies…and that’s when you begin to understand how startlingly original this book is.
Whitehead continues the African-American artists' inquiry into race mythology and history with rousing audacity and razor-sharp ingenuity; he is now assuredly a writer of the first rank.
Poets, scholars, and essayists reflect on race in America.
In this insightful collection, novelist and memoirist Ward (Creative Writing/Tulane Univ.; Men We Reaped: A Memoir, 2013, etc.) brings together 18 writers “to dissent, to call for account, to witness, to reckon.” Taking her title from James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time (1963), Ward hopes this book will offer solace and hope to a new generation of readers, just as Baldwin’s work did for her. Many essays respond to racial violence, invoking the tragedies of Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, Sarah Bland, worshipers at Charleston’s Emanuel Church, and Abner Louima, among many others. Edwidge Danticat reports that she asked Louima recently how it feels each time he hears that a black person was killed by police. “It reminds me that our lives mean nothing,” he told her. As other parents reveal in their essays, Danticat feels she must have two conversations with her daughters: “one about why we’re here and the other about why it’s not always a promised land for people who look like us.” She wishes, instead, to assure them “they can overcome everything, if they are courageous, resilient, and brave.” Poet Claudia Rankine was told by the mother of a black son, “the condition of black life is one of mourning.” Besides fear for their children’s futures, some writers focus on their black identity. As a result of genetic testing, Ward discovered that her ancestry was 40 percent European, a result that she found “discomfiting.” “For a few days after I received my results,” she writes, “I looked into the mirror and didn’t know how to understand myself.” Wendy Walters resisted thinking about slavery until the discovery of long-buried slaves in New Hampshire provoked her to research the past. Poet Kevin Young shrewdly probes NAACP leader Rachel Dolezal’s motives to pass as black. Carol Anderson, Emily Raboteau, Natasha Trethewey, and others also add useful essays to this important collection.
Timely contributions to an urgent national conversation.
The ubiquitous legal journalist and author returns with a detailed but swiftly moving account of the 1974 kidnapping that mesmerized the nation.
Readers of a certain age will be astonished that this case is more than 40 years old. So much has changed, as New Yorker staff writer Toobin (The Oath: The Obama White House and the Supreme Court, 2012, etc.) effectively points out. He reminds us, for instance, that live TV feeds from crime scenes were a novelty that spread rapidly after the coverage of a shootout between some members of the Symbionese Liberation Army—the motley crew that kidnapped Patricia Hearst, the young heiress of the noted publishing family—and the federal and local authorities. Toobin begins with a quick account of the kidnapping, an introduction of the principals, and some 1970s cultural history, and then he moves into the slow conversion of Hearst into a trash-talking urban guerrilla (the term she later used to identify herself), her involvement in SLA criminal activities, and her sex life. The author occasionally shows us the doings of those left behind—principally her family and her fiance, Steven Weed, who does not come off well, then and now. (He bolted when the SLA arrived.) Toobin ably charts the bizarre inability of authorities to figure out this crew of barely competent revolutionaries. Once Patricia is caught and on trial for her SLA–related activities, the author’s considerable legal knowledge propels the narrative. He shows us that both the prosecution and the defense lacked competence, especially celebrated defense attorney F. Lee Bailey, whom Toobin paints as an opportunist inebriated with alcohol and celebrity. The author ends with an update on the principals and notes that Hearst resolutely refused to contribute to his book.
Despite the lack of participation from Hearst, this is a well-informed, engaging work from a highly capable author.
A young couple’s plan to flip a house in Southern California goes awry and old wounds in their marriage reopen in this dark novel of unrelenting tension.
Nick and Phoebe are living in Boston when they notice other “young married professionals buying and selling houses for six-figure profits.” But it’s clear from the word “underwater” on the opening page that their dream is foundering. McGinniss (The Delivery Man, 2008) presents a smooth combination of present-time narrative and extensive flashbacks to reveal two lives wracked by more than just mortgage woes. Their marriage has been haunted by an affair Phoebe had with her mentor, JW, while on the fast track at a financial-services firm in Boston and an accident she had while “high on Klonopin” with their toddler in the car. Moving to California doesn’t improve matters. Nick learns on the eve of heading west that his new job there has evaporated. In their LA suburb, housing prices quickly go south after the couple takes out a heavy mortgage and plows all their money into renovations. Nick finds work as a kind of repo man with other underwater homes. Phoebe is a rep for a drug firm while maintaining a steady high with Klonopin and wine. Then JW resurfaces and Phoebe hopes to use him to get back on the fast track and somehow fix the family. Doomed and doughty, she’s a lexicon of contradictions, a kind of update on Maria Wyeth of Joan Didion’s Play It as It Lays. McGinnis also recalls Nathanael West’s Day of the Locusts in depicting their road, Carousel Court, as a catalog of strangeness and dangers: from coyotes and marauding home invaders to weird neighbors and crying, screaming cicadas.
McGinniss covers familiar territory in the marketplace and marriage but injects it with an urgency, a sense of constant, inescapable threat that all adds up to a taut page-turner.
A striking collection of essays that will leave readers wanting to reimagine our contemporary environment.
In his first work of nonfiction, Cole (Every Day Is for the Thief, 2015, etc.) crafts an anthological book of reflections divided into four parts: “Reading Things,” “Seeing Things,” “Being Here,” and “Epilogue.” Without much warning, readers are immediately thrown into the current issues that punctuate the news, social media, and the literary community. Acclaimed as both photographer and art theorist, Cole uses short essays to communicate fundamental ideas about his craft: “a photograph is…a little machine of ironies that contains within it a number of oppositions: light and dark, memory and forgetting, ethics and injustice, permanence and evanescence.” The author discusses James Baldwin and Jacques Derrida, and he analyzes the works of various photographers and poets throughout the years. The result is a compilation of essays that call to mind what Walter Benjamin did in his Illuminations: taking cultural works and applying them critically and politically to the now. “The black body comes prejudged, and as a result it is placed in needless jeopardy,” writes Cole. In fact, questions of race identity and justice are paramount for the author. “History won’t let go of us,” he writes. “We’re pinned to it.” What’s clear is that Cole perseveres in breaking away from historical tropes, offering to his readers differing perspectives that emerge from wide-ranging areas of study. “What always interests me—indeed obsesses me—is the way we engage in history,” he writes. “Except there is no ‘we.’ Americans do it differently and, often, irresponsibly and without particular interest.” Moments like these will make American readers stop to think, question the population they belong to, and find ways to make it better. The hope that Cole infuses in his prose is mirrored with poetically entrancing sentences: “We are not mayflies. We have known afternoons, and we live day after day for a great many days.”
A bold, honest, and controversially necessary read.
New York–based author Core (Veronica Beach, 2015) has put together a striking debut collection of 19 short stories revolving around sexuality and city life.
Core’s book opens with “Hog for Sorrow,” the tale of two women who moonlight as prostitutes for extra cash while systematically avoiding the feelings they have for each other. The characters are sassy, eccentric, and never afraid to speak their minds: “It was like he wanted me to be dead. Like I was interfering with my potential hotness by living….I hate this neighborhood….I hate every single person,” one of them says. Scenarios like these set the tone for the rest of the collection, which includes—but is not limited to—a recovering alcoholic craving companionship, a married couple on the brink of collapse, two women navigating through their age gap, and George Harrison featured in the most unusual way. Core is a master raconteur and organizes all of her tales around objects and places (most take place in a bedroom or in transit); she captures a quintessential New York cynicism—one punctuated with hopeless romanticism, stress, and hyperstimulation. But the cynicism also produces pure moments of bliss: “This is what it means…to be the keepers of something beautiful….They thought about what they had been when they stood next to each other. Freaks, strutting their base interests. But now, next to the dog, they lost their queerness, if only for a moment.” While the stories naturally give life to different characters, the text is successfully self-reflexive enough to harness a uniform voice that jumps from scene to scene, and the reader never lets go and never opts out of the ride.
Entrancing, subtle, and tragically poetic, this collection is an important contribution to queer literature.
A Yale Law School graduate’s account of his traumatic hillbilly childhood and the plight of America’s angry white working class.
“Americans call them hillbillies, rednecks, or white trash,” writes Vance, a biotech executive and National Review contributor. “I call them neighbors, friends, and family.” In this understated, engaging debut, the author reflects on his stormy journey from the coal-country Kentucky hollers of Appalachia to the declining Rust Belt to life among the Ivy League–educated elite. Born into a poor Scots-Irish family—with a pill-addicted mother and “revolving door of father figures”—Vance was raised in Ohio by his beloved and newly middle-class grandparents, hardworking believers in the American dream who married in their teens and never shook the trappings (abuse, addiction, and constant fighting and screaming) of their native Kentucky’s hillbilly culture. Mamaw, his grandmother, once set her husband on fire when he came home drunk; Papaw, a violent grouch, tossed a Christmas tree out the back door. In scenes at once harrowing and hilarious, we come to know these loud, rowdy gun-toters as the loyal and loving family whose encouragement helped the author endure “decades of chaos and heartbreak.” In the Marines and at Yale, Vance learned to make responsible adult choices and overcame the learned helplessness that characterizes many in the working class. Pointedly identifying the cynicism and willingness to blame others endemic among that class, he describes the complex malaise—involving sociology, psychology, community, culture, and faith—that has left so many bereft of connections and social support and unable to find high-quality work. The solution, he believes, is not government action but in people asking themselves “what we can do to make things better.” Declaring that he survived with the help of caring family and friends, he writes, “I am one lucky son of a bitch.”
An unusually timely and deeply affecting view of a social class whose health and economic problems are making headlines in this election year.
Welcome to an upfront seat at one of TV’s most popular sitcoms.
How does a TV studio replace the loss on Thursdays of Cheers, one of the greatest sitcoms of all time? With one that may be even better. Former Entertainment Weekly staffer Armstrong (Mary and Lou and Rhoda and Ted: And all the Brilliant Minds Who Made the Mary Tyler Show a Classic, 2013, etc.) believes that Seinfeld was special. Its “trademark bouillabaisse of cultural references and inside jokes” created “portals between its fictional world and reality,” its actors had rich characters to inhabit, and its talented writers, including star Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David, wrote smart scripts. Armstrong unfolds the show’s history chapter by chapter. Here are Jerry and David, two hardworking stand-up comedians, talking in a late-night diner, coming up with an idea for a TV show based, essentially, on them, a metashow in which little happens. At first it was The Seinfeld Chronicles. Jerry wanted it changed, and NBC president Brandon Tartikoff agreed. Armstrong then covers the “players,” how four characters were created by four talented actors, followed by the “network,” the “production,” the “writers,” and the “bizarros” (the show’s many odd ducks, including the Soup Nazi and J. Peterman). It all came together to create a masterpiece. The show’s tickets were always free, and tapings could last three hours. Even the show’s relatively minor characters became national sensations. America Online’s numbers plunged when Seinfeld was on. Just before the eighth season, David decided it was time to go. Jerry was worn out too. NBC offered him $5 million per show; he was already making $1 million. He passed, and the ninth season would be Seinfeld’s last. Armstrong’s intimate, breezy history is full of gossipy details, show trivia, and insights into how famous episodes came to be.
How nothing could become something or how a national TV audience learned to live in a Beckett-ian world. Perfect for Seinfeldians and newcomers alike.
A rigorously researched study of the entrenched system of racial classification that dispels many myths about American national identity.
In this impressive work of social history, Isenberg (American History/Louisiana State Univ.; Fallen Founder: The Life of Aaron Burr, 2007, etc.) challenges head-on America’s “fable of class denial.” From the first indentured servants brought to Plymouth and Jamestown to the caricatured hillbillies of Duck Dynasty, the existence of “waste” people, or impoverished, ignorant, landless whites, has persistently run against convenient notions of the upstanding American founder—i.e., moral, hardworking “entrepreneurial stewards of the exploitable land.” Dumped on the Colonies, the vagrant, often criminal poor from England and elsewhere were considered expendable and often exploited. As a key to the story, Isenberg looks at the early settlement of North Carolina, which became a “renegade territory, a swampy refuge for the poor and landless,” situated between elite Virginians and slaveholding “upstart” South Carolinians. Contrary to the mythmaking of the exceptional early American in writings by Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Paine, and Thomas Jefferson, based on theories of “good breeding” and yeomanry, a whole class of common people grew up as a byproduct of the slaveholding states, living on the margins of the plantations: dirt-poor Southerners (literally “clay-eaters”) who were considered lazy and racially degenerate. Moreover, the enormous new swaths of Western land were largely populated by a new class of “squatters” or “crackers,” considered “mangy varmints infesting the land” and represented by the first Westerner elected president, Andrew Jackson. Isenberg examines some surprising sources of these early stereotypes of white trash, such as Harriet Beecher Stowe’s novel Dred: A Tale of the Great Dismal Swamp (1856), in which the author “described poor whites as a degenerate class, prone to crime, immorality, and ignorance.” From the eugenics movement to the rise of the proud redneck, Isenberg portrays a very real and significant history of class privilege in the United States.
A riveting thesis supported by staggering research.